On Monday, July 8th, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and several Councilmembers introduced a legislative package to reform a high priced inspection system that frustrated restaurant owners say has hurt their small businesses with subjective and exaggerated inspection violations.
Mayoral hopeful Quinn’s promise to reform the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) restaurant letter grading system comes three-years after countless restaurants complained, calling the inspections a moneymaking scheme for the City. The legislative package will address inspection inconsistencies and the combative relationship between inspectors and restaurants.
“I believe in the necessity of the Department of Health and that they have to protect the public,” said John Ricco, owner of Grandma Rose’s on Graham Avenue. Ricco, who has a letter grade A posted on his window says that he’s disgusted by the obvious abuse of power that the City agency has on small businesses. “Who gave them the power to drain us of thousands and thousands of dollars for minor infractions that have nothing to do with food? We’re not even small businesses, we’re micro-small businesses paying big time fines,” Ricco said.
Once a year, the health department conducts an unannounced inspection at almost 24,000 restaurants in the City. DOHMH has a points system to determine the grades. The restaurants with a score between 0 to 13 points earns an A, 14 to 27 points earn a B, and 28 points or more receive a C. Restaurants can display their given grade or dispute the grade at the Tribunal Court and display a Grade Pending certificate.
Of the 183 restaurants in Greenpoint 133 have A grades, 21- Bs, three Cs, eight are Grade Pending and 19- Not Yet Graded.
A recent City Council survey showed 65.9 percent of 1,297 restaurant owners rated the letter grading system as “Poor”. And recently, 40 restaurants in the Bronx sued the City for $150 million in damages. The restaurant owners claim the inspection’s inconsistencies have resulted in an excessive amount of fines that have led many to close their restaurants.
Jaslee Carayol, spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, argues that restaurants are cleaner, with more than 80 percent earning an A, since the grading system was implemented in New York City.“This rambling, scattershot attack on the city’s regulation of food service establishments lacks merit and should be quickly rejected by the courts,” stated Carayol in an email to Bloomberg News.
New York City Public Advocate and mayoral hopeful, Bill de Blasio, conducted a survey illustrating that “Brooklyn small businesses are more likely to be inspected, more likely to receive violations, and have faced higher fines under the Bloomberg administration”. The report also shows “Brooklyn restaurants on average received 12.7 percent more violations than the City average in 2012”.
According to another City Council survey, 68 percent of restaurant owners said the grading system significantly increased the cost of operating their businesses.
Assemblyman Joe Lentol says that no agency should be making money from small businesses. “The inspection system should not be making money. It should only make sure the restaurants are clean and compliant to DOHMH,” said Lentol. He says he will support any legislation that helps and protects small businesses from abuse. “I’m all for reforming this system. There’s more leniency on crimes than small businesses.”
Greenpoint restaurant Papacito’s closed on Wednesday because the fines were too high. This concerned neighboring Peruvian restaurant owner Lesli Jimenez. “I have a letter grade A, and I know when it expires the inspectors will look for anything to fine me,” she said. Jimenez, owner of Pio Pio Rico on Manhattan Avenue, employs eight workers and is concerned with the high costs of the disputable fines. “How am I going to support my family and my employees’ families with some of these ridiculous fines?”
A few doors down from Papacito’s is newly opened Agra Taj Majal. The Indian establishment is Not Yet Graded, but the owners are worried that no matter how clean the kitchen is the inspectors will look for a cash cow. “I am concerned,” said restaurant manager, Lisa Zaman. “But we will do all we can to make it hard for them to find any violation in the kitchen”.
That may not be enough. According to data obtained by the New York Post “most fines issued over the past two fiscal years — 65.7 percent so far this year and 66.7 percent last year — are for breaches unrelated to food quality.”
“Our customers are smart and they know that having a B is not an indication of our foods,” said Ivan, employee at Mother’s in Graham Avenue.
Antonio Reynoso, chief of staff to Councilmember Diana Reyna, the Council’s Small Business Chair, is excited about the reform to the City’s inspection system and hopes restaurant owners understand the importance of the legislative package. “It’s a serious bill. It is going to relieve them from paying these fines that are shutting down businesses or making it harder for the restaurants to operate on a daily basis,” said Reynoso.